Military Recreation: A Little R&R

The Epicenter at Great Lakes naval station, Ill.

photo courtesy of mwr great lakes

On July 3, 1911, Joseph Gregg was the first recruit to arrive at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois, on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. The training station had been dedicated that same year by President Taft, after being approved in 1904 by Theodore Roosevelt. Gregg went on to graduate in that first class of 300.

Today, Naval Station Great Lakes is the largest training station in the U.S. Navy, encompassing more than 1,600 acres. More than 20,000 sailors, marines, soldiers, airmen and DOD (Department of Defense) civilians live and work on the installation, and the Navy's only boot camp is housed there as well. The base has its own fire department, security forces and public works department.

And now, the Epicenter—Great Lakes' entertainment mega-complex—has celebrated its first anniversary after opening in January 2017. The $14 million non-appropriated fund (NAF) project was first hatched in 2011, with construction beginning in September 2015. The center is overseen by the naval station's MWR (Morale, Welfare & Recreation) department.

John Prue, installation program director for MWR Great Lakes, said it was a long process from the initial concept to project approval, and eventual construction. "Lots of twists and turns throughout those six years, but the Epicenter is definitely a product of good planning, hard work and dedicated people who were willing to make this happen."

The Epicenter offers many entertainment possibilities, as well as a place to unwind. "We built the Epicenter and all of its business lines with the thought of supporting the entire Great Lakes community, which includes military, their families, retirees and DOD civilian employees," Prue said.

The old building used to serve only the station's junior sailors. Therefore, the concept of making the new facility available for everyone to use was questioned early on in the planning phase. But the center has been a big hit in its inaugural year. "It's been well-received by the entire community. Families and staff are fully utilizing the Epicenter and all of its amenities as I thought they would," Prue said.

The new complex houses a 28-lane bowling center, as well as a 175-seat state-of-the-art movie theater, which plays first-run movies and 3-D titles, including a number of free advance screenings and pay-per-view events during the first year. "Most importantly, this theater allowed us to get out of an older, 1942 oversized theatre. Moving operations under one roof is the type of reduction in footprint that will make MWR as a whole a more efficient organization," Prue said.

photo courtesy of mwr great lakes

There are amusements and billiards areas, along with food and beverage options. Their franchise concept SPINZ offers handcrafted food, including burgers, pizza, made-to-order panini sandwiches, wings, salads, wraps, smoothies and more. It features a grab-and-go deli, and offers free delivery on the main base.

The Legends Sports Club is a sports lounge with unique décor, focusing on the many sports legends who served and played for the Great Lakes football and baseball teams during World War I and World War II, competing against major colleges during that time. "A full-length mural depicts things such as the Great Lakes football team winning the Rose Bowl in 1918 with George Halas, to the accomplishments of Bob Feller, who pitched and coached for the Great Lakes baseball team," Prue said.

The center has an area for live entertainment, called Live@525, which features live bands, comedians, DJs and community special events. "It's a beautiful space in the building that can be something different for different groups," said Prue, "and we program it accordingly." The area can also be rented for private parties and functions.

During its first year, the Epicenter hosted more than 350,000 customers, with movies shown to over 22,000 people and 95,000 games being bowled. Some of the free community events included a Daddy/Daughter Dance and Mother/Son Adventure Date, Monte Carlo Night, Blast from the Past: '80s Prom Night, the Taste of Great Lakes food tasting expo and Country Night. There was a Halloween party, and December featured the Holiday Extravaganza and Trees for Troops.

MWR programs and services exist to keep active duty personnel stress-free and focused on their mission. This might mean providing a world-class fitness center, according to Prue, or offering an accredited child development center to give peace of mind to military parents. And the Epicenter is a big part of this mission. "The bottom line is that MWR is here to serve those who serve our country."



Navy MWR Naval Station Great Lakes: